Tabula Rasa: Playing The Identity Game With Player-Created Protagonists

From Sonic and Mario to Lara Croft and Solid Snake, video games have their fair share of iconic characters: recognizable heroes with defined and broadly endearing personalities. But behind this gallery of familiar faces are the many, many unsung heroes of both genders. We don’t know their faces because they have many. We don’t even know their names, because they have even more and some of them are frankly obscene. These are the player-generated characters, and they’re simultaneously the most exciting and frustrating kinds of characters to play.

Immerse Yourself

‘You look over your gun, but a predefined face looks back at ‘you’. DOOM [Credit: id Software]

One of the key factors that differentiates #VideoGames from other mediums is the expectation of immersion. We control a video game protagonist in real life, the impulses in our heads translated into moves and actions in the game world, so far as the mechanics allow. So on a level, the game protagonist IS us, and we’re all more emotionally involved in the game for it. How common is it to hear ‘I died’ instead of ‘Lara Croft died’, from a frustrated player?

Games are structured to make the player identify as much as possible with their character. To that end, a lot of classic video game characters are deliberately left pretty bland. Doomguy, the classic FPS hero space marine, is given few characteristics aside from his gender, but the first-person view and empty characterization makes him effectively a suit for the player to wear. A bland muscular white dude suit, one size apparently fits all. We don’t know much about Doomguy’s inner life, but we wince every time an enemy projectile hits and he goes ‘oof!’

As games become more complex and ambitious, there’s a tendency to leave behind the bland everyman protagonists of yesteryear in favor of more developed, specific characters. Blizzard’s strategy games had army commanders so abstract as to be almost nonentities, but WarCraft 3 and StarCraft 2 instead featured distinct hero units such as Arthas, Thrall, Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan as faction leaders and player characters. The protagonists of the Grand Theft Auto series also underwent this progression towards more complex lead characters as the tone of the games became more serious.

But the trouble with the trend towards more specific characters is that as much as they are crafted to be endearing, they lose some of the potential for immersion that makes video games so special. One way to capture that magic is the customizable, create-your-own type characters favored by the #RPG genre.

Play The Same

Fallout 3’s Gene Projector [Credit: Bethesda Softworks]

The obvious way to go with a game with a character creation system a la Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls or #Fallout titles would be to make a character that represents yourself. This can be a godsend if you want to see yourself (or, given what goes on in video games, a stronger, fitter, braver version of yourself with magic powers) represented in-game. Given that AAA video game protagonists tend to heavily skew towards the stubbly and melanin-deficient, finding one that you can relate to in appearance can be tough.

Aside from appearance, a detailed game will also give the player control over the character’s background and personality. So you can put even more than your looks into the game, but make choices that agree with your personal outlook. Depending on how linear the game is, this could mean the choice of a few different dialogue quips before you waste the megademon boss, or result in a dramatically different story.

Playing as yourself has a couple of things to recommend it. It’s comfortable, natural and immersive, plus it gives people who don’t get a lot of representation in the range of predefined protagonists to see themselves in-game. But as well as the immersive experience of playing oneself, it can be even more fun to flip it around and play against type.

Play Different

Mass Effect 2 character creation [Credit: Electronic Arts]

Another approach is go the opposite route and make characters that are deliberately different from our real-life selves. I’m as susceptible to the wonderful ego massage that is playing a surrogate character as anyone else, but I also like to change it up and play characters of different race, sex, or sexual orientation from me. In this case the appeal isn’t necessarily heightened immersion, but just the creative fun of imagining characters distinct from myself.

I know at least one guy who always creates heroines that match up to a certain fictional crush of his, and a girl who always recreates families that she knows from real life when she plays The Sims, but never her own. We’ve all got different reasons why we tend to customize characters in a certain way, all more varied that the more universal egocentric power fantasy of playing a character like ourselves.

Who do you create? [Credit: Electronic Arts]

Playing against one’s usual type also has the benefit of expressing some aspects of our personality that we don’t get to show often in real life, and exercising our empathy for people different than us. To some individuals, video games can be the way they first get to explore trans identity, to others it can open them up to the experience of playing an oppressed minority or class, depending how the game world treats the different options available to the player.

This kind of variety of experience, when done right, can add huge replayability to a game. When a game has both character customization and a lot of reactivity to one’s character creation in-game, then you can guarantee that I will be running through it a few times just to see the different content available. Unfortunately even games with detailed character customization can fall short of actually letting you BE the character you imagine.

Good Created Characters Are Tricky To Get Right, Who Does It Best?

If looks are what’s most important to you, then Skyrim + mods definitely has you covered for whatever you’re into

Actually making character creation choices count in a game is a difficult task. On one hand, you want the player to be free to play the kind of protagonist they want to. On the other hand, your game has a story to tell, and you don’t have the resources to make every NPC in the game world react appropriately to what the player character would say or do. Inevitably, most of the time, game content will be the same no matter what kind of character the player makes.

Skyrim and the Elder Scrolls series in general are particularly egregious offenders when it comes to this. The story has escalating political and racial tensions at its heart but decide to wander Stormcloak territory as a persecuted Argonian, Khajit or Dunmer and you’ll see hardly any acknowledgement of this. You can marry anyone you like, as their sexual orientation will conveniently match to yours, but in no way will your partner ever feel like they know you or make any comments on your chosen characteristics.

Skyrim is king when it comes to giving players accessories, outfits, houses and so on to express your character through appearances, but appearances are skin-deep, and ultimately it doesn’t feel like your choices make an impression on the game world. One dragonborn ends up very much like another, and it’s up to the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps and try and vary the experience.

Bioware games are for the lovers, but there’s also plenty of fighting [Electronic Arts]

Bioware RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 3 do better in this regard. Their signature romance subplots can make the gender chosen at character creation very important to the story, and their dialogue is more fully fleshed out than the stoic mutes that are found in The Elder Scrolls or Fallout games, letting you choose a personality as well as your looks. In the #MassEffect franchise, the Paragon/Renegade ‘alignments’ can make you feel like you’re playing distinct types of characters even when you’re basically following the same story.

Tyranny makes antiheroes feel just as viable and human as heroes [Paradox Interactive]

In my recent gaming experience , probably the most impressive implementation of a player’s choices at character creation have been Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny, both RPGsdeveloped by Obsidian. Graphically, their old-school isometric design can’t capture the level of aesthetic detail that BioWareor Bethesdagames can offer, but where they excel at is making the choices of character background and personality have a long term impact on gameplay. If your character is of a certain race or from a certain place, NPCs will often have an opinion about it. When you act altruistically, cruelly, bravely or rashly, there’ll be consequences further down the line.

Right now, we’ve got a lot of different companies trying different approaches to making the best create-a-character experience for gamers, and they’ve all got different strengths—I’d say Bethesda for aesthetics, BioWare for romance and close relationships and Obsidian for social relations.

Ever more complex games in the future will place even more demands on devs who want to allow us our own created heroes (or anti-heroes). As difficult as it is, I hope that the best around will learn from each other’s success. As much as I have fun playing with pre-made video game characters, there’s nothing quite like the emotional attachment to one’s own creations.

What kind of characters do you create most often? Why?

This article originally appeared on video games magazine site The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a selection of articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.

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